Ensemble Theatre’s latest offering, WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID, is set in 1972. Women’s liberation is rising. Soldiers have returned from Vietnam, and they’re different somehow. Abortion is illegal and some domestic violence survivors move along an Underground Railroad system, ending up in home like Agnes’s.
Agnes, played by the brilliant Christine Dye, owns a bed and breakfast. She also takes care abused women. She’s tough; a former Army nurse, she can stitch a wound as well as she bakes. Dye, one of the region’s best actresses, commands the stage understanding how to walk the balance between humor and drama with her honest, authentic, and emotional performance. The subtle choices she makes stand out as she is grounded, real, and nuanced.
While we see her biting wit and deep understanding of the character, it’s in the play’s climax that we really get a sense of her talent. Tess Talbot, playing militant lesbian “Hannah,” prompts play’s emotional breakdown scene by allowing Agnes to tell a story about betrayal, love, adoption, and hurt. If this play had more of that, it’d be a winner.
Brian c. Mehring’s gorgeous set feels lived in, thanks to Shannon Rae Lutz’s attention to detail in props and other dressings. The soundtrack had me bopping my head and tapping my toes between scenes. Unfortunately, thought, this production never fully finds its identity. Sometimes it feels like a period-piece sitcom; other times, it’s mediocre melodrama. Only Dye’s anchoring energy keeps it on the rails and when she’s off stage, the show suffers. The script seems uneven, trying to tackle too many issues at once and never really taking hold of any of them with as much intensity as it could. It’s an important play, because of the subject matter and our current cultural climate, but instead of raising important questions, it’s focused on making a point. Or points. None of them resonate fully.
Even still, Dye’s masterclass in acting is a sight to behold.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG AND UNAFRAID runs through March 12th at Ensemble Theater in Over-the-Rhine. Click here for tickets and more information.